The first night of Readercon was a special, abbreviated (and free) program. After getting a few reading suggestions from the "The Bit I Remember" panel, I made my way to the "Endangered Alien" panel.
The premise of the discussion centered on the notion that contemporary SF has avoided the theme of aliens in recent years. Whether following the near-future ethos of William Gibson and Neil Stephenson, or embracing the near-earth space opera mode favored by Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds, science fiction hasn't had a lot of alien races in the past few years.
I couldn't dismiss this idea out of hand. After a few moments of consideration, I could only remember a handful of novels in the past decade that described truly alien aliens. There have been plenty of virtual aliens (Charles Stross), transhuman aliens (Ian Banks), and human aliens (many examples but 'Shh! It's a Secret which I reviewed earlier this year, sticks out), but precious few truly alien aliens.
The best example in recent years of a novel investigating the idea of a truly different extraterrestrial life is Blindsight, the first-contact story by Peter Watts, which advanced the idea of a highly intelligent, non-sentient life-form inseparable from its own creations. Other than that, it may be true aliens are on a down swing.
The panelists and audience members offered a few ideas why this might be so. First off, the role played by aliens in speculative fiction may have been usurped by more palatable alternatives. Aliens offer a chance for writers to talk about the 'other,' beings different from perceived norms of human society. From sparkly vampire to outsider werewolves and transgressive mutants, stories that once may have used aliens to address social problems and concerns now use metahumans.
Secondly, one of the panelists mentioned a movement among younger SF authors, the 'Mundane Manifesto,' that considers the use of interstellar space travel, alternate histories, time travel, and aliens to be unlikely considering present understanding of science. Because these themes aren't likely, they serve to distract readers from the consideration of our most probable future, life on Earth and the most hospitable worlds within our own solar system. Personally I've never heard of the 'Mundane Manifesto,' but I've read an awful lot of fiction in the past decade which, upon reflection, follows these guidelines. I think Kim Stanley Robinson was keeping this world view in mind when he centered 2312, his most recent novel, on the work to save and restore the planet Earth.
Lastly, and this is my own thought on the matter, it might be the case that all of the low-hanging fruit have already been picked as far as aliens go. We are long, long past the time when bumpy-forehead aliens and cat-aliens can be taken seriously by any one with knowledge of biology. Our own world contains too many examples of bizarre extremophiles and unlikely habitats to serve as inspiration for aliens. Perhaps authors have been humbled by what science had discovered about the adaptability of life, and unwilling to dream a little deeper, as suggested by a member of the audience.
For myself, I've included aliens in my writing almost exclusively of the 'too advanced to be comprehensible' variety. If nothing else, this panel has encouraged me to consider what the use of aliens in speculative fiction might offer the world. Is it just a distraction or will one of the central themes of Science Fiction once more emerge with new value in today's stories?
Currently Watching: Kids in the Hall
Currently Listening to: "Beautiful Way" Beck
Currently Reading: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf/Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku (on CD)